tv Tavis Smiley PBS June 28, 2012 12:00am-12:30am EDT
tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. so rich, so poor we're glad you have joined us in this conversation with peter edelman coming up right now. >> every community has a martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. it's not just a street or boulevard, but a place where walmart stands together with your community to make every day better. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you.
tavis: peter edelman is the director of the center of poverty and inequality at georgetown. he is also a noted author whose lives text is called "so rich, so poor, why it is so difficult to end poverty in america." i want to start with a quote i pulled out of the book. it will permit me frame our conversation. -- it will frame perfectly our conversation appeared "poverty
and america are words that should not appear in the same sentence. but we should have poverty have all is oxymoron it and we have the highest child poverty rate in the world is downright shameful." that phrase that we should have poverty at all is oxymoron, i think some will find it interesting because, some christians to read the bible where it says that you shall have the poor with you always, make the case for me for why poverty should not even exist in this country. >> for one thing, we have become a very rich country. whatever was the case during the depression, really through the first 150 years of this country is not true now. what is really shameful is that we have the capacity -- this is not a matter of handouts. we're talking about people
should work. people want to work. but they need to earn enough to get out of poverty and we need to have a decent safety net. every country in the world -- industrialized country has health care for everybody. they have help with housing. they have child-care appeared to have all of the support, help with going to university or college. we do some of those things. we do some of them pretty well. we do some of those things in an awful way. and we have a huge amount of low-wage work that keeps people imprisoned and not able to make it either out of poverty or at least to the point where they don't have to worry about being one paycheck ahead of bankruptcy. tavis: why is it that poverty has not been made the priority in this country that it has been made in other countries? let's start with that. why have we not prioritized it in that way? >> we have to be careful of painting with too broad a brush
with this. we have done a lot could starting in the 1930's with social security and on up to the 1960's. but since then, besides social security, we have medicare, medicaid, food stamps, the year earned income tax credit, help with housing, on and on. what we have is keeping 40 million people out of poverty come instead of 46 million people, which we do have, we would have 86 million. why is it that, despite all we have done, we still have poverty rates that are this high? tavis: and the reason is? >> we have had a change in our economy, starting in the 1970's, where the good high paying jobs that to build much of the middle class in this country, certainly bill for the african- american class in this country along with municipal employment,
those jobs went away. they were replaced and it is good that they were replaced, with lower wage jobs. half the jobs in this country pay under 34 -- under $34,000 a year. a quarter pay under the poverty line for a family of four. and that number has been stuck for almost 40 years. half the jobs in this country only pay 7% more, including inflation, than they did then. that is what has been gnawing at a spread the other part of days that we do have more families where there is only one wage earner. we have more single moms who are there. and, of all races, it is more disproportionate with african- americans as we know. but it cuts across all races. if you have one person to send out to work in this economy, you will have them in poverty.
and then, i think, there is a continuing politics here that is very connected to race that is in the equation. i hate to say that. the fact is that, more people who are poor are white. to many americans think of a person of color when they think of poverty. they have been suggested to think that we buy too many of our politicians. tavis: is very bipartisan consensus in washington? this book, if it says anything, it says to me to policymakers, here's the problem and this is what ought to be done. this is a polemic that lawmakers need to take seriously. and you live in washington. is there, to your mind, a bipartisan consensus in washington that poor people -- i don't want to say don't matter,
but their issues are not as important as other national concerns? >> i think we have a politics right now that is very ugly that came as a result of the recession. a lot of the people who were the poor, what would be more sympathetic, have said help me instead of those who don't deserve it. we have the politics of anger that does want to have someone to look down at. you just look back a little bit in time and talk about the 40 million people that i mentioned would be poor except for the of the policy we have. food stamps are serving 46 million people. gosh, it is good that we have it because it is our main anti- recessionary tool for people beyond unemployment insurance,
especially those at the very bottom or those who are newly hurting as well. we had a bipartisan consensus about food stamps until about a short time ago. in the george w. bush administration, there was an undersecretary named eric boast, he was a texas friend of george w. bush. in 2002, when a reauthorized food stamps, they actually rescinded some of the cuts that had been made during the clinton time. this new attack on food stamps with mr. gingrich calling obama the food stamp president and this general idea of that it is the food stamps of the new welfare and we need to get rid of it, that is actually a new thing. what they want to do is turn it into a block grant it instead of having a legal right, as you do have, just leave it to the
states. they can help or not. that is what we did to welfare. that is the other story i would tell you. that was definitely bipartisan -- not all democrats -- but a bipartisan agreement in the wrong direction in 1996. and that is a very sad and unfortunate terrible story because now of cash assistance for mothers -- and this is a story about mothers and tobin, about women and children -- is about on in more than half of the country. in the state of wyoming, they are the big winners on this. barely 600 people in the whole state, mothers and children, receive temporary a substance for needy families. no wonder -- you know you have 6 million people who will only have food stamps, no other income now?
it is totally astonishing. tavis: let me ask a question of each of those points. we will start with food stamps. the recent days that you referenced a moment ago with the bipartisan consensus that food stamps are not a priority for needy americans, it was really democrats who disappointed me. you worked for a democratic administration. but what do you say about -- i know that your book is not partisan per se -- but what do you say about these democrats who did not stand up to fight and protect food stamps literally just days ago? >> you are talking about the vote? let's not over-interpret that. although, let's not under- interpret that either. it is the tip of the iceberg. in a broader sense, i don't think that democrats have turned against food stamps at all. when i was talking about in
terms of turning food stamps into a block grant so the states could help whoever it wanted, i don't know any democrat who is in favor of that. as part of the farm bill last week, where there were making cuts for farmers in a somewhat timid way, but moving in the direction to cut down on direct payments to farmers, the politics of it was -- well, if you are going to do that, you have to do something about food stamps. two steps are now 80% of the farm bill. -- food stamps are now 80% of the farm bill. but let's be very diligent about the fact that this republican crowd, especially in the house -- paul ryan and the rest of them -- absolutely want to attack food stamps to the extent that they get more power, to the extent even that there are bills where they do a bad thing, the senate does a pretty good thing, they go to conference and there is a compromise just in order to get a bill to hurt food
stamps. tavis: i just came off a book tour about poverty and by reference to in my book. -- in mind -- and i referenced you in my book. i want to press you on this. i think you're being charitable and generous. i asked you about democrats and you immediately jumped on beating up on all right. democrats in the house conceded on those food stamps. they did not draw a line in the sand. i don't know how anybody justifies austerity top and white food stamps programs need to be cut when we know that food insecurity is on the rise. what i am specifically asking about is what complicity democrats have played in the last few days in compromising on this bill that frankly cut food
stamps. >> we have a difference about that. i really want to say that it is not much of a difference. i am really worried and i think everybody who cares about having a decent safety net, which is already ripped for people at the very bottom. we have 20 million people who are in deep poverty, who have incomes below the poverty line. all we have basically is food stamps. so we have to protect food stamps. and to the extent there is any kind of a compromise that seems to open the door -- this is really the point where we i think we are in the same place -- that seems to open the door to cutting food stamps is simply unacceptable. tavis: so we have some commonality there. one of the reasons i have such great love and admiration for you -- and i like bill clinton.
but you courageously, 15 years ago, resigned your post, a high post in the clinton administration over the issue of welfare reform, as it was called then. weeks ago, on the front page of "the new york times" there was an in-depth study about the welfare reform bill 15 years ago had really done to women and children. it was abundantly clear in this -- abundantly clear. in a sentence "peter edelman was right." when a high clinton official resigns and disagrees with the president, obviously, it will be news. i and now you're not the kind to say i told you so. but what do you make of that courageous effort and how long it took to finally be proven right. >> i am sorry i was proven right.
[laughter] people are hurting as a result of that. and they started -- the heart started immediately. it was masked for the first four years in the middle of a hot economy. women went to work. moms who had been on welfare -- some had been on welfare for a long time, that had not been good either pinned states set their own levels of benefits like they do now. so the benefits were not great everywhere. and they did not seriously -- mrs. robert kennedy talked about this in 1967 when i worked for him. it was not helping people to get on their own 2 feet. and that was a problem. but that is not with the clinton bill did. it just said to people, go get a job. it was a kick in the pants bill.
on top of that, you don't have a legal right to get it anymore and you have a time limit of only five years. in those first four years, yes, people went to work, but what nobody talks about is that 40% of the people who left welfare, even between 1996 and 2000, ended up with no welfare and no job. it was not so marvelous even then. but there was that increase. that increase went from 49% of the single moms on welfare who had been on welfare to 64%. it is now going back down to 54%. it started going in the other direction in the year 2000. so we have been seeing for some time that the thing was not working properly, that it was not really helping enough people and it was really hurting some people. then comes the recession and we definitely -- if we needed proved, people say to me, it
turns out you are right. i was right all along. [laughter] tavis: even though you don't want to be. i have said many times on this program, reminding people how long time that poverty has been an issue, and the last presidential race, in three presidential debates, the word poor or poverty came up three times. obama did not raise it. mccain did not raise it. the moderators, unfortunately, did not raise it. how does poverty this time around become a front-burner issue between obama and romney? >> poverty only gets to be a front-burner issue in our country if people demand it. we need leadership. we can hope for leadership.
we had our robert kennedy appeared we have others in the house and senate. but really, people running for office tend to respond to people who push. so we have to be talking about organizing can we ought to be talking about people who are doing what we're doing here and reaching people in terms of the mass media. i think now people are very important to this. i think that the next level of people who are also being shafted here, who are not have those poor but low-wage jobs and our stock, -- and are stuck. for 40 years, the have not had a chance to go up because there are not enough jobs of there. instead of getting angry and say we will vote for somebody who will give us some help, too many of them are voting for the side
that says no more taxes. in fact, let's cut the taxes of the people at the very top. that is no good for these people, but they are voting against their economic interest. in addition to low-income people themselves getting more attuned, getting more involved, especially young people, i think it is the next level that needs to reach out and say, you know, you're not voting in your own interest. tavis: but it is the case these days sadly that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be poor. >> that is true. tavis: if young people will be engaged along any issue, it seems to me that, the younger you are, though more likely you are to be poor, they need to be
organizing. >> absolutely. and i did not mean only low- income young people are the idealistic people in our society. when we had the civil rights movement, it was certainly the heart of it, african-american young people who went to those lunch counters and said we would not take it anymore. and they sat in. i remember vividly being in europe as a young person just out of college and seeing all of this in the late 1950's, all of the activism there and wondered why we didn't have it in our country. and then it came. it was black and white. it was across the board. i think this should be a national issue. it is so important. we say that we -- we say that national security is important. this is national security. our democracy is at risk. if we want to be secure, our people have to be secure economically and have to be included in our society. tavis: you have raised the phrase the new poor.
i use it, too, but i mean the former middle-class. talk to me about how the middle class for the former middle class has been so hit by poverty. i was watching tv two nights ago this week, it must have been sunday night, lester holt on nbc on "dateline" ready did a wonderful piece -- of a good 60 minutes" did it a few months ago, to -- he did a piece where he specifically spent the entire hour with three different families who were once firmly affixed in the middle-class and they are now completely impoverished and have lost everything. talk to me about what poverty has done to the middle class as we know it. >> it turns out that you can see it in the numbers. we had 31 million poor people in the year 2000. we have 46 million now, almost 8% increase.
we have a 74% increase in washington, d.c. where i live in family homelessness since the recession started. in the numbers, you can see it everywhere in the country. it means that, for the new poor, and so far that they had savings and the trouble sets and gradually, there are issues about food and the psychological well-being of the children in particular. we see in some of the smaller towns in this country where they have been declining for a long time. they were prosperous farm towns are mining towns. that has gone away. and they end up being chronically poor. we have seen some of the same behaviors with methamphetamine in so many of those small towns. unfortunately, but understandably, people's lives fall apart and some people have
the resiliency to keep on nevertheless and some people just don't. poverty is not a good thing. tavis: what is remarkable about your life and that of your wife -- first of all, you two are a great love story, of love and passion and courage and commitment and conviction, lives dedicated to helping the least among us, dedicated to helping disenfranchise people -- how did this become so early in your like a passion for you? you have been a long distance runner on this issue. >> thank you. two things happened. i am a an upper-middle-class person from minneapolis, minnesota. my father was a lawyer appeared he was poor growing up. i knew that growing up, his own struggle. but it was when i went to work for robert kennedy -- there is a one-two here.
he was so committed, poverty and racism and the intersect, which is a pretty dangerous intersection. i learned from him. we went around the country together. not just to mississippi, but to enter cities. we walked together -- but to inner cities. we walked together in central los angeles after the year been unrest there. and that was just powerful for me to learn in that first and way. that is the way he learned. he went to listen to people and to see from himself. i got that from him. and as he strongly implied, i went down with him for some hearings on the continuation of the war on poverty, the economic opportunity, which is where i met marion. that is also when we saw children in this country. she showed this to him and
secondarily to me who had swollen bellies. these were families who had no income because it was the purpose of the governor and the power structure of that state to drive black families out of mississippi because they were worried about what the right to vote would do to their power. i have had it in me ever since. tavis: so peter annmarie took up and the rest, as they say, is history. all these years later, this long distance runner has a new book out called "so rich, so poor, why it is so hard to end poverty in america." thank you for the book can think for your work. >> thank you. tavis: that is our show for tonight. thank you for watching. keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a
conversation with freddie roach. >> every community has a martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. it's not just a street or boulevard, but a place where walmart stands together with your community to make every day better. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. >> be more. >> be more.